Grandmother in my briefcase

Executive Pinstripe Cinnamon Coffee Cake

Executive Pinstripe Cinnamon Coffee Cake

My Mom has always spoken about her Grandmother’s baking in rapturous tones. This was once used for the forces of delightful evil against one of her sisters-in-law. As happens in many families, my Mother had a somewhat competitive relationship with her sisters-in-law. I’d like to say it was all in good fun, but if I did my pants may burst into flames.

So, please travel back with me to the early or mid nineteen-seventies, just outside of Boston. Nixon (or was it Ford?) was in The White House and…well, you don’t need that much detail, do you?

The sister-in-law who is the star of this cautionary tale made strudel for a family celebration and placed it upon a table fairly groaning with goodies. I don’t remember my Mother’s contribution to this horn of plenty, but it was likely one of the many Bundt Cakes she used to bake. (Pistachio Pudding Cake, a close relative of the legendary Harvey Wallbanger Cake, rings a bell, its green tinged mellowness a properly coordinated accessory to the avocado-colored appliances that were the order of the day.)

Sorry. Back to the strudel…as an instrument of torture, my Mother praised her sister-in-law’s strudel on high for all to hear. It was a trap, and her sister-in-law fell for it, hook, line, and phyllo dough.

The sister-in-law made the mistake of asking, “Is it as good as your Grandmother’s?”

If she had just left well enough alone, no one would have been hurt.

The answer to that ill-advised question? Therein lay the sharpened tip of the instrument of torture: “Hmmm, not quite like my Grandmother’s. Well how could it be? Her’s was…oh, but it’s wonderful though.”

The ability to explain the specific qualities of her Grandmother’s Strudel that made it so extraordinary seemed to elude my Mother that afternoon, a deficiency that tortured her sister-in-law with its every twist and turn.

The real irony is that the sister-in-law in question was not your typical mid-twentieth century homemaker. In fact, she was an entrepreneur who, with her husband, ran a popular retail business. That she threw herself into her kitchen with the same intensity she threw herself into her business is to me, in retrospect, both admirable, and perhaps typical of her generation.

Sister-in-law is long gone, but interestingly, my Mom still hangs out with the same friends she’s had since she was a young suburban Mother. Like some modern-day extension of the Diaspora, they have all migrated from chilly New England to the same warmer location down south and after more years than I am allowed to report, they have remained close.

Their “get-togethers” then as now are marked by one inevitable characteristic: noise. Time—and hearing loss—have only heightened this ear-shattering cacophony. Where the “get togethers” used to be centered around a game of mah-jongg or cards, they now take place in a restaurant—and pity the poor waiter who has to split all those salads with dressing on the side. A couple of Extra-Strength Tylenols would not be out of place on the tip tray.

Of course the card and mah-jongg games were just an excuse to host the group at home, something that required endless reciprocation. The food was usually little deli sandwiches for don’t forget, this was long before the now well-trod path of platters of Costco Wrap sandwiches. Desserts usually met two important criteria: nothing sticky so that the cards or mah-jongg tiles would stay clean, and they had to be coffee-friendly. If one or two of the items were homemade you were assured a victory. (Fortunately this was not a tough crowd as long as you followed the rules…and left some for fat l’il Mikey when he got home from school.)

My Mom had one standby that fit these occasions perfectly. Family lore is vague on where the recipe came from—my Mother’s Grandmother? A cherished Aunt? We may never know, but what is clearly important is that at some point I had the foresight to write down the recipe. I carried the recipe around for years and never made it…I was put off by the large infusion of Crisco, an ingredient that has not stood the test of time.

After ignoring the recipe for many years, I happened to re-read it and was struck by its simplicity, its potential, and its retro style. It is the perfect Cinnamon  Coffee Cake. Why perfect? Moist. Fluffy. Delicious. Easy. Fast. (In no particular order.)

Well, it became the perfect Cinnamon Coffee Cake after I made one vital change: I use canola oil instead of Crisco. (I knew you’d approve.) The temptation remained to make other changes: brown sugar instead of white sugar? No. A touch of chocolate? Not necessary. It is one of those recipes that could go precariously off the rails if fiddled with too much.

It goes without saying that I rarely have occasion to have a group in for cards or mah-jongg, so just when do I use this cake? There are times when I meet with folks over coffee in a business setting. People who know I bake and write about it have certain expectations about me, one of which is that I won’t show up empty-handed. The perfect Cinnamon Coffee Cake fits the corporate meeting room like a pin-striped suit.

I wonder: what’s the cake version of the “power tie”?


The recipe for my Executive Pinstripe Coffee Cake. Enjoy! Get a raise. Or a promotion.


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